One of the many lamentable consequences of Trump's campaign is the precedent it sets. A reality TV star with no discernible political experience has overwhelmed the process, and he did it without a platform or a meaningful policy proposal. By leveraging his celebrity and using the spectacle-obsessed media to his advantage, Trump has shown how decadent our system has become.
Celebrity Republican candidates aren't new. Fox News and the conservative media-industrial complex have propped up unserious candidates before. There was Sarah Palin, the illiterate governor who captured the imagination of right-wing media and nearly became vice president. After losing, she promptly abandoned her office for a lucrative reality TV career of her own. Then there were people like Herman Cain and Ben Carson, policy lightweights who made no real effort to understand the world they wanted to lead but cruised to the top of the polls on the backs of ratings-chasing pundits. Both, moreover, have used their political celebrity to sell books and profit on the conservative lecture circuit.
But Trump has taken this deplorable trend to another level. He's the most gifted brand hustler in the country, and he's used that sordid skillset to hijack a party and a presidential campaign. Even worse, no matter the outcome in November, he's already won.
According to a report in The Washington Post, Trump's campaign has been a boon for his personal fortune. Reviewing his federal disclosure forms, the authors conclude the presumptive nominee has seen his revenue increase by roughly $190 million, “with gains coming from golf courses to branded merchandise to book royalties.”
From the report: “At his tony Florida resort Mar-a-Lago, revenue nearly doubled, climbing from about $16 million in 2014 and the first half of 2015 to about $30 million since the start of his campaign...Sales of his licensed bottled-water brand, Trump Ice, are up as well – from $280,000 last year to $413,000 this year...'Crippled America,' his book published in November, made between $1 million and $5 million in royalties, he reported.”
To measure the effect of the campaign on Trump's companies, the authors examined disclosure forms from the previous year: “Last year's form reported that Trump's holdings brought in revenue of $362 million 2014 and the first half of 2015...The form released Wednesday – which the campaign said shows revenue spiking to $557 million – covers a shorter period of time but encompasses the life of his presidential campaign.” The speculation that Trump's hate-baiting campaign would be bad for business, we now know, was wrong.
As the authors of the report note, “The flood of cash highlights one of the most unusual aspects of Trump's candidacy – the potential that a private businessman can benefit financially from a run for the White House.” I'm not sure how “unusual” this is, but it's certainly depressing. Our election system was already poisoned by a perverted incentive structure (which is why the best and brightest have no interest in public office), but this is beyond what was imaginable a year or two ago.
Running for president is now a business venture, scarcely distinguishable from a reality TV program. We have an entire industry for political entrepreneurs looking to grow their brand. Trump didn't create the system that made his political existence possible, but he's the inevitable result of it. And others will surely follow the trail he's blazed.